Doku Umarov: Dead or Alive

Doku Umarov: Dead or Alive?
Both Authorities and Insurgents are Becoming More Active in the North Caucasus
By Andrew Roth
Russia Profile | 03/30/2011

Doku Umarov, Russia’s answer to “Osama Bin Laden”, is dead, government sources told Interfax on Tuesday. In a special military operation which included a massive airstrike from an unmanned drone, a helicopter attack, and a ground operation, Russian special forces say they killed 16 guerillas in a terrorist camp in Ingushetia. Some of Umarov’s top lieutenants have been identified among the dead, but the body of Russia’s most-wanted terrorist has yet to be found. While investigators continue the grisly work of examining the “biological remains” at the site, authorities have backpedaled on their early predictions of Umarov’s demise.

Umarov’s death was first reported by Interfax citing unnamed sources in Russian security forces agencies in the North Caucasus. Yet while heady statements were made on Tuesday about Umarov’s body being likely to be found among the dead, a preliminary investigation was unsuccessful in identifying the body. The follow-up investigation may take some time. Descriptions of the scene say that investigators have found “parts of bodies together with scraps of sleeping bags on nearby tree branches,” reported Kommersant.

Russian local and national leaders have taken the lead in underlining the importance of the recent raid. “That they were able to catch these creeps in their den is good,” said President Dmitry Medvedev, reported RIA Novosti. “They managed to inflict considerable losses.” The head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, took a cautious line on the pressing question of the death of the terrorist leader. “It has been confirmed that there were a series of [terrorist] leaders. Right now they are not being named.” Bodies of terrorist leaders that have been identified included Sulyan Abdullayev and Aslan Butyukaev, who were expected to have been close to Umarov by Russian special forces.

This is not the first time that Umarov’s death has been prematurely announced. He was suspected dead multiple times after gun battles with security forces in 2005, for instance, and was said to have been seriously injured after stepping on an anti-personnel mine in the same year. Yet each time Umarov has reemerged, much to the frustration of Russia’s anti-terrorist operatives. The insurgency web portal kavkazcenter.com, which has hosted videos made by Umarov and other rebels in the past, wrote that “the Kavkaz Center does not have any confirmed information about a possible martyrdom of the Mujahedeen leaders,” in an article on the website which attacked “occupying forces for providing contradictory information” about Tuesday’s battle.

The raid and subsequent leaks on Umarov’s death took place one year to the day after a series of bombings in the Moscow metro killed 40 and sent a shockwave of panic through the capital. Questions have emerged about the timing of the attacks, which could be seen as a public relations ploy to exhibit progress in dealing with the rising trend of terrorist attacks in the past year.

Yet such a connection seems tenuous, said Andrei Soldatov, the head of agentura.ru, a website that provides analysis on Russia’s special forces, because the impetus for an operation like that would require serious public pressure. “I think that’s an exaggeration of the role of Russian public opinion and the demand to stave off any future terrorist attacks. Who in the special forces, on the eve of the first anniversary, would even try to do such a thing? They would only do that when they felt like they were under extreme public pressure concerning the attacks, and right now we don’t really see that.”

Shortly after news of the operation broke on Tuesday, Umarov was charged by Russia’s Investigative Committee with masterminding the terrorist attacks at Domededovo airport earlier this year, a bombing that he publicly took credit for not long after the attack. Yet why wait until the death of the leading suspect in the bombings to make the accusations against him public?

This, said Soldatov, is probably a response by the Investigative Committee to the announcement by Russia’s National Anti-terrorist Committee that among the dead were some who had planned the attack against Domededovo. “We should take into consideration that there are some conflicts between the law enforcement agencies, and the Investigative Committee has always demonstrated its wish to show itself as very active in the war on terrorism. They made loud announcements after terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of the Nevsky Express [in 2009]. I think that in this case they also wanted to make an announcement of some kind.” The Investigative Committee itself has been embroiled in a long turf war with the General-Prosecutor’s office, concerning an underground gambling ring tied to local police officials in the Moscow region.

As the investigation into Umarov’s possible death drags out over the next week, the lack of information will likely lead to greater doubt about whether Umarov was actually among those killed in the attack. However, considering Moscow’s grisly experiences with terrorism, the death of terrorist leaders does not necessarily mean a reduction in attacks against Russia in the future, said Soldatov. “2010 was paradoxically the most successful year for Russia’s special forces, in terms of the number of successful operations to liquidate the leaders of the guerillas, and at the same time it was the worst year in terms of the rise in terrorist attacks. As you can see, the two have not really influenced one another; both sides have just been increasing their activities.”

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